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As national smoking rates rise, NY's drops

An office worker smokes a Lucky Strike cigarette.

An office worker smokes a Lucky Strike cigarette. Credit: Bloomberg News File / Oct. 2007

While national rates for cigarette smoking have risen slightly, New York has shown a decrease in smokers, which experts attribute to the state's high cigarette tax and aggressive anti-smoking laws and programs.

Nationally, about 20.6 percent of adults were smokers in 2008, up from 19.8 percent in 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.

Even so, the trend over the last decade is still downward: Since 1998, the proportion of adult smokers has declined overall by 3.5 percentage points.

In New York, the rate of adult smokers dropped from 18.3 percent in 2007 to 16.8 percent in 2008, the lowest ever measured in the state, said Claire Pospisil, a spokeswoman from the state Health Department.

Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable illness and death in the country, according to the CDC. But, as states struggle with budgets, many are cutting back on their smoking prevention programs, yet few have raised cigarette taxes as high as New York's, the nation's third highest.

With a $2.75 per pack tax levied by the state, along with taxes by other jurisdictions, a pack of cigarettes in the state costs from $7 to $10. Nassau and Suffolk counties have asked to put their own taxes on cigarettes but have been turned down by the state. New York City adds $1.50 a pack.

"New York is a role model," said Matthew Myers, president of the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "While the rest of the country is stagnant, New York is a demonstration that its comprehensive effort is working."

The decline in New York means there are about 300,000 fewer smokers, said Pat Folan, director of the Center for Tobacco Control at the North Shore-LIJ Health System. "Some people look at [smoking] as a dead issue, that we shouldn't have to worry about it anymore, but in fact it's not completely gone away," Folan said. The center, supported by a $600,000-a-year state grant, is one of 19 such regional centers statewide.

The CDC's survey found the highest prevalence of smoking among the least educated: A 27.5 percent rate for people with less than a high school diploma and 41.3 percent for those with a General Educational Development certificate. Only 5.7 percent of people with a graduate degree smoke, according to the survey.

Myers predicted that smoking statistics from 2009 will show a sharp decline because of the April federal increase in a cigarette tax from 39 cents to $1.01. He said preliminary data from the first three-quarters of the year show a drop in smoking of about 9 percent.

"The lesson of the impact of the federal tax as well as New York's is that by increasing the tobacco tax and funding comprehensive programs, we can dramatically reduce the number who die from tobacco use," Myers said.

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